Populism in Portugal: A Safe Encounter

  • Rodrigo Pereira
  • 3 June 2019

Democratic Portugal has learned how to live with populist parties that, as leftist movements, have been responsible for accommodating the populist vote.

It can be argued that populism has always been around if we are to accept it as the political tool that places “the people” in opposition to “the elites” that make up the establishment. In line with that thought, and to better understand populism and its appeal, it is important to realize that 21st Century increasingly mainstream politicians were not the first to exploit the flaws of democracy by pretending to stand as the guardians of the masses.

Having said that, it is equally crucial to understand that populism is a political instrument rather than an ideology of its own, which in turn tells us of its multiple temperaments and characters.

In Europe, the phenomenon of populism is deeply rooted, and, coupled with nationalism, has twice before contributed to the start of devastating wars that quickly became global. Following the end of World War II (WWII), Southern European conservative governments claimed to champion traditionalism, while others, particularly in the East, called for international revolution and workers’ solidarity.

The victory of the liberal democratic system confirmed through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 left no space for predicting a comeback of radical populism. Nonetheless, a wide range of factors can be said to have stirred up the European political scene of the 21st Century. From failed economic promises of the 1990s to the crash of the banking system in 2008, from an ever-changing job market to the perceived change in cultural habits, Europeans have felt betrayed by a system that, according to their everyday perception, promised but did not deliver.

For decades within the liberal democratic system, both protest and conscientious votes were channelled to the minor (and not so minor) leftist parties, as well as catch-all spontaneous movements that often included people and ideas of various political orientations. However, with a few exceptions, the new populist surge is mainly a right-wing one, and, for a variety of reasons, it is particularly in Central and Eastern Europe that the ghosts of the far-right make their presence firmly felt. This text does not confuse the traditional right-wing with newer political “alternatives”, who base their electoral campaigning on more pressing, immediate topics that often deal with cultural challenges and questions of national sovereignty.

From Sweden, the Czech Republic and Denmark to Bulgaria, Greece and Spain, the populist right now makes its voice heard among European parliaments. Within the myriad of sects that characterize them, there are a few basic contentions that populists stand for regardless of nationality. Essentially, they argue for anti-immigration policies, generally rhetorically directed at migrants of the Islamic faith. At the same time, they stand against European integration as prescribed by the EU model. Lastly, the new populists appear as classic conservatives in their defence of traditionalism and European culture as a block.

At this point, it is only normal to wonder why Portugal hasn’t been affected by the populist wave.

Historically speaking, the Portuguese revolution of 1974 – who liberated the country after half a century of prosaic conservativism – allocated the radical speech to the left-wing. This phenomenon effectively institutionalized a left-leaning populist rhetoric, represented on a parliamentary level by at least two political parties. The Portuguese Communist Party (in the Assembly of the Republic since 1975), constantly argues for the empowerment of the “workers and the people”, and the Left Bloc, first elected into parliament in 1999, remains committed to the “construction of a socialist and popular alternative”.

While these may be examples of populist speech, they do not at all resemble the ones echoing from the other tip of Europe. In Poland, the deeply conservative Law and Justice government strongly opposes unsocial capitalism, while it also calls for a Catholic Poland for poles, as well as growing military spending. In Hungary, an equally social government demands a Hungary free of foreign threats and cultural shocks which the government associates with mass migration. In Portugal, during the last European elections, the newly created populist right-wing coalition Basta (Enough) did not reach 1,5% of the total vote.

If, as argued above, populism is more of a tool than a political ideology in its own right, then democratic Portugal has learned how to live with populist parties that, as leftist movements, have been responsible for accommodating the populist vote.

A few reasons may be put forward as to why Portugal has not yet faced a right-wing populist offensive up to this moment.

Geographically speaking, Portugal is peacefully situated at the edge of Western Europe, not having to deal with any sort of border contention. Its border, set by the Treaty of Alcanizes, has remained undisputed for over 720 years, constituting the oldest territorial boundaries in Europe.

Internally, the country has one of the world’s most homogeneous populations, not knowing the meaning of populational, regional or religious fragmentation. In this regard, political power has consistently been based in the urban centres and has not been challenged by ruralist nor provincial unrest throughout the duration of the republican regime.

All through its history, ever since the age of discoveries, Portugal has been a global nation. This national awareness has perhaps prevented a feeling of anti-globalization, or at least its translation into political action.

In terms of migration, Portugal has always been a nation of emigrants, and immigrant communities are relatively well-integrated throughout the country, with the majority of immigrants coming from Portuguese speaking Brazil.

As long as Portuguese populism is safely kept within the confines of leftist parliamentary debate and does not make use of racist and anti-institutional discourse, Portugal will remain an island in an ill continent.

  • Rodrigo Pereira